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Hardscrabble: The High Cost of Free Land

By Donna E. Williams


When the Free Grants and Homestead Act was first introduced in 1868, fierce debates erupted in Ontario's Legislature over whether land in the Muskoka region should be opened to settlement or reserved for the Aboriginal population. From the beginning, many people vented serious doubts about the free grant scheme, citing the district's poor agricultural prospects. In the end, such caution was ignored by overeager boosters.

The story in Hardscrabble also takes readers to Britain, where emigration philanthropists urged their government to send the country's poor to Canada, then follows these emigrants as they left the familiar behind to make a new life in the Canadian wilderness. The initial romance of living off the land was soon dispelled as these hapless souls faced clearing the land, building shelters, and sowing crops in desolate, remote locations.

Donna Williams's extensive research leads her to conclude that Muskoka's experience epitomizes the wrongheadedness of placing already poor people on remote land unsuited for farming.

Foreword by J. Patrick Boyer

Published by Dundurn (2013)

ISBN 978-1-4597-0804-4

Eliza's Revenge (Working title)

Eliza’s Revenge, a historical literary novel, follows the publication of my first book, Hardscrabble: The High Cost of Free Land (Dundurn, 2013), a history of Muskoka settlement that one critic described as “scholarly, but certainly accessible.” Hardscrabble described the plight of poor East Londoners who were coerced into settling a scenic but very rocky district, beginning in 1868.


With Eliza’s Revenge, I have not only humanized the story through fiction, but interpreted the “pioneer” experience in a unique way, for I have told two parallel tales: primarily, the story of young Eliza Cook’s family who find themselves struggling to survive on their Muskoka free land grant; also the story of the Reverend Styleman Herring, a true character, who was instrumental in their move and whose fortunes increase due to his part in the emigration of his impoverished parishioners to Canada. 

Eliza's Revenge
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